|Hall Rifle Works, Harpers Ferry|
In an era when America’s history is being erased and its monuments are being removed, a group of young political leaders did something meaningful.
West Virginia State Senator Patricia Rucker, and WV Delegates Jill Upson and Riley Moore, made sure a bridge commemorates the person whose actions span the ages.
John Hancock Hall was the person who perfected interchangeable parts. His accomplishment, created using water power from the Shenandoah River at Harpers Ferry, made our modern age possible.
Hall was a self-taught engineer. His rise from a ship builder in Portland, Maine to a person who changed the world is inspirational. In 1811, at age thirty, Hall received a U.S. Patent for the world’s first breech loading weapon. Changing the of loading ammunition from the muzzle of a gun to its breech revolutionized warfare. This was just the beginning.
Hall won the contract to create the manufacturing process, and the machines, to produce rifles and carbines with parts that were fully interchangeable. The U.S. War Department wanted weapons that were easy to repair on the battlefield. At the time, all weapons were individually hand made by skilled craftsmen, each one unique.
It took eight years for Hall to create the revolutionary machines and processes that would become known as the “American System”. In December 1826, the world’s first fully interchangeable product, made solely by machines, rolled off Hall’s assembly line.
This moment made our modern world possible. Once one complex item could be consistently made by machines, it was possible to make anything by machine. This was revolutionary - technologically, economically, and culturally.
The impact of Hall’s inventions and processes was immediate, dramatic, and fundamental. The speed and volume of meeting consumer needs made a quantum leap, and continues to speed-up to this day. The cost of consumer goods plummeted, vastly expanding their availability to a broader range of people, improving lives.
The role of the worker was forever changed. For thousands of years craftsmen learned their craft from masters and then spent days, or even weeks, producing individual items. The “American System” changed everything. Younger workers, with limited training, could run manufacturing machines that produced ready made goods in hours. This reinvented the entire work culture for America, and eventually the world.
Hall’s inventions, and his system of mass producing interchangeable parts, was the ultimate disruptive act. His death in 1841, at age 60, meant others stepped forward to promote and adapt his inventions and processes. Hall’s accomplishments faded from memory. Rucker, Upson, and Moore sponsored and led the passage of legislation that makes sure he is memorialized in the Route 340 bridge over the Shenandoah River by the ruins of Hall’s Rifle Works.
History wrongly credits Eli Whitney, the inventor of the cotton gin, as the father of interchangeable parts. He was not. The John Hancock Hall Bridge establishes Hall’s proper place in world history.
This is what monuments, and the naming bridges and places, is all about. Humans need physical reminders of who we are and why we are. We need places where we can go to understand the events that continue to shape us.
Just like people and events, inventions change things in a multitude of ways. Some changes are immediately tangible, some take generations to comprehend. Hall’s inventions made warfare more deadly and disrupted the role of the master craftsman. Hall’s inventions also made manufactured products affordable, and created employment opportunities for millions.
The actions of Senator Rucker, and Delegates Upson and Riley remind us of why we have monuments. They proved that even a few people can still make a difference.
Monuments draw attention to what shapes our identity, frames how we view our past, and prepares us for the future.
[Scot Faulkner is the President of Friends of Harpers Ferry National Historical Park. He served as the Chief Administrative Officer of the U.S. House of Representatives. He also served on the White House Staff, and as an Executive Branch Appointee.]